by Farmer Richard
There is a lot happening at the farm this time of year. We’re running a race against time to harvest as much as we can before winter sets in for good. We’re busy planting some of next year’s crops already…garlic, sunchokes and horseradish are just a few. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, we also have to start thinking ahead to the next season as this is a crucial time of the year to lay the foundation for next year’s crops. The nutritional well-being of our soils and plants is paramount to the success of our crops, our health and yours! Our philosophy has long been to provide our plants with everything they need for healthy, vigorous growth. Healthy plants are strong & can defend themselves. They can outgrow the weed competition and insects are not attracted to them. They are also more resistant to disease. The result is dependable production, higher yields, and food that tastes really good! While this is a basic concept of good organic farming, it is not easy. However, we can attest to the fact that it actually works!
Just as with human health, a lot has to go into the system for everything to function optimally. Right now we’re in the midst of reviewing our annual soil tests. Every fall we take samples from our fields and send them off to a soil lab where they are analyzed for a variety of nutrients and indicators of soil health. One of the important results we always look at on our soil test is the CEC, cation exchange capacity. Simply put, CEC is an indicator of the organic matter in the soil and the soil’s ability to hold nutrients. We are blessed with some very rich soil in our valley. In particular, the fields on our home farm are a soil type known as silt loam. These fields have a high CEC, which we can see on our test results, but also in the quality of the crops that grow in these fields. Soils with high CEC are more resilient and have a more stable soil structure. They hold water and nutrients that can support plants during periods of drought, yet at the same time they drain well during times of excess moisture. We strive to increase the CEC and amount of organic matter in all of our fields. But how?
Organic matter is built by adding compost, growing cover crops, and by supporting microbes in the soil that break down crop residue thereby returning it back to the soil. Many of our farm’s fields are vibrant colors of green right now, as they were seeded to a cover crop earlier this fall. As soon as we finish harvesting a crop we immediately plant a cover crop. This fall we planted a diverse mix of oats, millet, rye, winter peas, vetch and clovers. The purpose of a cover crop is to keep the soil covered and protected from wind and water erosion that can occur over the winter. They also support soil microbial life, capture and hold available nutrients and produce nutrients by capturing sunshine. We have found that cover crops are one of the most efficient ways to maintain and build soil fertility. After the crop is planted, there is no further buying, hauling or spreading necessary. Everything happens right in place in the field. The cover crops will go into the soil to be digested by soil organisms (ie tiny microbes to earthworms) and become food for our next vegetable crop.
Cover crops and soil building are still just part of the big nutrition picture. Our fall soil tests also help guide us in making decisions as to what additional minerals we will apply in the fall for each field. Every year we take nutrients out of the soil in the form of vegetables which we send your way. In order for the complex system to work, we have to make sure we replenish them and provide them with a balance of nutrients to draw from for their critical life processes. So we buy and spread mixed mined minerals to replace the ones that left the farm in the form of food for others. Does this really make a difference? We think so! Minerals and trace elements are key components to many plant and soil processes. If they are not present or are not in appropriate balance, systems do not function optimally and the crop may not have as many nutrients.
While much of our soil building efforts happen in the fall, we also invest in the nutrition of our plants during the growing season by providing them with additional minerals and nutrients at critical stages of their growth. We do this by adding nutrients to irrigation water delivered through drip lines to the roots and also foliar feeding which feeds the plant through the leaves.
Many farmers question whether all this nutritional hoopla is worth the extra effort and expense. As stewards of the land, we feel that it is our responsibility to not just take from it, but to also care for it so it can be productive for many years to come. We also feel that it is our responsibility to grow the highest quality food we can grow. Isn’t the whole point of eating to nourish our bodies? So when we’re asked if it is worth it to spread minerals and compost, plant cover crops or provide additional nutrients, we find it hard to not answer “YES!” Maybe you can taste those nutrients too?